The Cell by the Sea
Geoffrey of Monmouth tells the tale of how Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall, on realising that Utherpendragon had fallen in love with his wife Ygerna, had her locked up in his strongest castle at Tintagel. He then shut himself up in another castle within sight of Tintagel, known as Damelioc. With the aid of Merlin's magic Utherpendragon entered the castle at Tintagel and seduced Ygerna. That night Arthur was conceived.
Arthur has been associated with Tintagel since Geoffrey wrote his “History of the Kings of Britain” c.1136; there is a complete absence of an earlier Cornish tradition from which Geoffrey could have based his account on, leaving many to conclude that the Arthurian events at Tintagel in his work were purely his own invention. After Geoffrey, Arthur's association with Tintagel quickly fades from the Romances and the connection is limited to the tales of 'Tristan and Iseult' as the seat of King Mark of Cornwall.
The Iron Age hill-fort of Castle-an-Dinas is situated some 700 feet above sea-level, consisting of three concentric rings of 850 feet diameter, with a single entrance on the south-western side. Two Bronze Age barrows are situated in the interior. Since the 15th century the earthwork has been associated with the Arthurian legend; William of Worcester claimed that the hill-fort was the place where Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, died. The hill-fort is also known as 'Arthur’s Hunting Lodge’ (or Hunting Seat) from which Arthur rode out across Goss Moor. A stone in St Columb was said to bear the footprint that Arthur's horse made whilst he was out hunting.
Three miles south of Castle-An-Dinas, is a conical hill crowned by a small circular fort enclosing the Church of St Dennis, the old name of which was 'Dimelihoc' (clearly Geoffrey's Damelioc), now known as Domellick. Castle-an-Dinas is clearly visible from here whereas Tintagel is not, being some twenty miles distant. It would seem Jenner was correct.
Following Jenner, excavations at Tintagel by Courtenay Arthur Ralegh Radford in the 1930s and 1950s interpreted the Headland as an early Christian monastic settlement with no Arthurian associations, a view that endured for nearly fifty years before historians began to seriously question Ralegh Radford's interpretation.
He referenced the excavation Sites on the Headland as A, B, C, etc, with the first being the site of the earliest buildings of the Celtic monastery. Site A consists of a medieval chapel built across Post Roman buildings. These earlier buildings Ralegh Radford considered to be the site of the nucleus of the cult of the Celtic Saint Juliot, the medieval chapel being built across the Saint's cell. To the south-west of the chapel is the base of a tomb-shrine, a type well-known in Ireland used to contain sacred relics. North of the chapel Ralegh Radford identified four shallow, rock-cut graves that he considered to be evidence of the monastic cemetery.
|St Juliot's chapel|
The 'Lives' of several Irish saints refer to a site, known as 'Rosnat' where they would go to study theology and sacred scripture, that was clearly across the sea in Britain. The location of Rosnat has continued to elude historians but Galloway in Scotland and St Davids in Wales were favoured possibilities. In the early 1970's Cornish historian Charles Thomas speculated that if a Cornish monastery, perhaps associated with Mawgan, did indeed exist at Tintagel it could have been Rosnat which is always described as south-east from Ireland.
The ecclesiastical interpretation offered by Ralegh Radford, himself an Arthurian since his father (Arthur Lock Radford) took him to visit Bligh Bond's excavations at Glastonbury in 1910, was a considerable shift from the then current thought that saw Tintagel as an Arthurian site since it was popularised as such by poets such as Alfred Lord Tennyson and Robert Stephen Hawker, the eccentric parson poet from Morwenstow, during the Arthurian Revival of the Victorian Age.
Ralegh Radford never completed a full report of his Tintagel excavations; his lack of documentation and his monastic interpretation of the site were viewed with some suspicion; an enormous amount of 5th and 6th-century pot-shards, originating from the Mediterranean and Byzantine world, have been uncovered at Tintagel; more than almost all other sites in Britain combined. It seems highly unlikely that a monastery would be that involved in trade on such a scale. Indeed, the pottery evidence suggests a high status site.
The Song of the Western Men
In 1983 a grass fire on the island plateau exposed a much larger number of building foundations, casting further doubt on Ralegh Radford's monastic reading of the island.
|Tintagel, the Headland (copyright English Heritage)|
At the time of the discovery of the inscribed slate Geoffrey Wainwright, speaking for English Heritage, declared that while the King Arthur of medieval Romance did not exist, Arthur the Dark Age warlord who fought battles in the 6th century was a historical reality. Wainwright described the discovery at the find of a lifetime and saw it as evidence for the historical Arthur, “close enough to Arthur to refer to the legendary warrior king”.
A media frenzy ensued with newspaper headlines declaring that evidence of King Arthur had been found at Tintagel. A later newspaper article soon declared the find a hoax citing a Plymouth man who claimed to have inscribed the slate with a pair of compasses during a school trip to Tintagel in 1980. The hoax has since been disproven as the slate was discovered in undisturbed layers of earth deposited in the 6th century by the project officer and supervisor Kevin Brady. Further, surely a hoaxer would have inscribed the name “Arthur” not something obscure but similar sounding.
Above the “Artognou” inscription is part of an earlier inscription, given little publicity at the time of discovery, but initially interpreted as the deeply incised letters “VAXE”, possibly the tail-end of an inscription in classical form. Microscopic examination has revealed that the `ARTOGNOU' inscription post-dates this inscription.
The upper text consisting of four larger letters is typical late Roman period. Letter 1 cannot be 'V' as it has two descenders and is therefore said be either 'II' or 'H'. Letter 2 has been identified as 'A' and letter 3 as 'V' with an unusual downward prolongation. It is suggested that Letter 4 posses a downward hook on its lower terminal making it a letter 'G' of the type known as a 'sickle-G'. It should be read as Roman capitals, either 'II A V G' or 'H A V G'.
Accepting that letters 2 to 4 read as 'AVG' this would give the conventional abbreviation of the Imperial title 'Augustus' as found on Roman-British milestones of the late 3rd and early 4th centuries.
With letter 1 = 'II' this suggests the upper inscription should be read as [LEGIO] II AVG [VSTA], the Second Legion Augusta.
In the 1st century AD Legio II Augusta participated in the Roman invasion of Britain under the command of Vespasian. From 55 AD the Legion was stationed at Isca Dumnoniorum, Roman Exeter, presumably patrolling the lands of Dumnonia (Devon and Cornwall). About Twenty years later the Legion moved to Glevum (Gloucester) before being transferred to Isca Silurum (modern day Caerleon) in south Wales shortly after. Under Septimius Severus much of the II Augusta moved to Scotland in 208 AD. The last record of II Augusta is in the Notitia Dignitatum which lists the Legion at Rutupiae (Richborough, Kent) under the command of the Count of the Saxon Shore; Isca Silurum by then abandoned.
The evidence for a Roman presence at Tintagel in the 1st century AD therefore is slight, calling into question the validity of the interpretation of the upper text as a reference to Legio II Augusta. However, later Roman period activity at Tintagel cannot be ruled out.
In 1981 re-examination of ceramics found on the Tintagel Headland pre-1938 among Ralegh Radford's collection identified Oxford Red Colour Coated ware, widely distributed across Roman Britain during the 3rd and 4th centuries AD that had been incorrectly identified as post-Roman imports (Phocaen Red slipped ware). Furthermore, during Ralegh Radford's 1955 re-excavation of landward side of the Great Ditch a small coin hoard was discovered in a rock cleft. Ten Roman coins were found in a shrivelled leather drawstring purse dating from Tretricus (270-74 AD) to Constantius II as Augustus (337-61 AD).
|The Artognou Stone|
Once the building went out of use with the termination of the Roman governance of Britain the slate would have become redundant, later inscribed with the second text relating to Artognou, Paternus and Coliauus, demonstrating the continued use of Latin in the southwest of Britain after the Romans, before finally being trimmed to fit as a drain cover in the 6th century.
The absence of any convincing archaeological evidence has led to the collapse of the ecclesiastical interpretation of post-Roman Tintagel. The Headland is now referred to as a “high status secular site” seasonally occupied by the kings of Dumnonia. A series of earth mounds around the parish church, dedicated to Saint Materiana, six hundred yards along the north Cornish cliffs on the mainland, may be the Royal burial site.
A new program of archaeological investigations at Tintagel has already declared the discovery of a 'Dark Age' high status building on the Headland in July 2016. The media circus that followed declared it as the discovery of King Arthur's palace. However, as with the inscribed 'Artognou' slate, this is not evidence for Arthur.
Ralegh Radford may have been wrong about the Celtic Monastery, but he was right about Arthur.
Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson
R C Barrowman, C Batey, C D Morris et al, Excavations at Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, 1990-1999, The Society of Antiquities of London, 2007.
O J Padel, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Cornwall, CMCS 8, 1984, pp.1-27.
O J Padel, Some South-Western Sites with Arthurian Associations, pp.229-234, in R Bromwich et al, The Arthur of the Welsh, University of Wales Press, 1991.
CA Ralegh Radford, Tintagel Castle, HMSO (1935), Second edition 1939.
CA Ralegh Radford and Michael J Swanton, Arthurian Sites in the West, University of Exeter Press, (1975), Revised edition 2002, pp.26-37.
Charles Thomas, Rosnat, Rostat, and the Early Irish Church, Ériu 22 (1971), pp.100–106.
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